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Loopholes allow Swiss weapons producers to massage export rules

People demonstrating against weapons exports
Weapons exports are a controversial subject in Switzerland, as evidenced by a demonstration in Bern in June. © KEYSTONE / ANTHONY ANEX

Weapons exporters already exploit enough regulatory loopholes to make a proposed relaxation of the Swiss arms trade a largely academic exercise, according to a Federal Audit Office (FAO) report.

In June, the government proposed allowing weapons to be exported to countries in the throes of internal conflict provided it could be established that they would not be used by warring parties. The FAO says it is currently possible to sidestep existing restrictions using perfectly legal measures.

One such loophole is a provision that allows a certain amount of weapons parts to be shipped to intermediate third countries for assembly without the need for an agreement that forbids the re-export of the finished articles to other states. 

The FAO gives examples of these so-called “alternative export opportunities”, such as tanks that ended up in Qatar via Canada and of pistol parts that made their way to Saudi Arabia after passing through the United States.

Companies can also sidestep stricter scrutiny by arguing that armaments are designated for civilian use. This includes the case of telescopic rifle scopes being shipped to Iran via Italy. 

The FAO’s report into war materiel exports in 2016 recommends that these loopholes should be made more transparent. It also calls on the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) to make more rigorous audits on Swiss weapons producers rather than rely on post-shipments checks abroad. SECO should also have more distance from companies and lobbyists that represent the industry, the report concludes.

However, SECO criticised the “one-sided” and “arbitrary” report, accusing it of being politically motivated and containing numerous errors and exclusions of important facts. SECO also hinted that the FAO may have overstepped its legal mandate in compiling the report.

Earlier this month, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) president Peter Maurer slammed Switzerland’s mooted relaxation of war materiel exports, saying such a move would damage the country’s “humanitarian profile”. 

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR